In Nigeria, rich promise unfulfilled

Villagers' plight fuels protests that shake oil markets, raising U.S. prices

December 17, 2006|By Article by Scott Calvert | Article by Scott Calvert,SUN FOREIGN REPORTER

AZUZUAMA, Nigeria -- An acrid smell wafts over the boat. Soon rainbow-colored streaks and psychedelic swirls become visible, dancing on the still creek waters. The forms, pretty enough to be art, are in fact ugly signs of the latest oil spill in the Niger Delta.

Days earlier, residents of this remote village say, a pipe belonging to Italian oil company Agip began spewing crude. Now the lattice-like roots of mangrove trees, normally tan at the waterline, appear jet black. A man scoops up a dead fish, its silver scales tarred. Two men in the chest-deep water cup their hands and bring up inky liquid.

This is the seventh spill in three years, villagers say. They drink from the creek, bathe in it, eat its fish. Yet there has been little to no cleanup or compensation by Agip or the government. "We are peace-loving, but because of the nonchalant attitude we want to wage war," says Job Molo, 36, who is unemployed and out of patience.

Nigeria has been pumping oil for 50 years, reaping more than $500 billion in earnings that account for three-quarters of government revenues, according to the World Bank. It supplies 9 percent of American crude imports, a figure some experts predict will rise as the U.S. tries to reduce its dependence on the volatile Middle East.

But oil's true legacy here is not measured in dollars per barrel. Many believe this natural bounty has proved more curse than gift for Nigeria, whose leaders have persistently squandered chances to reinvest the oil wealth in ways that would bolster the nation's economy and provide basic services for its citizens.

And despite recent progress -- a tough pollution fine on Royal Dutch Shell, and fledgling steps by oil companies and nonprofit groups to help build more sustainable communities -- the advances have been too meager to blunt Nigerians' frustration and militants' increasing attacks against oil companies.

Communities across the oil-rich Niger Delta lack electricity and water, and endure rundown schools, clinics and roads, if they exist at all.

Worse, people have suffered because of oil. Pollution has hurt fishing livelihoods, and the government's gluttonous appetite for oil income at the expense of other industries has stunted the national economy, leaving legions jobless.

"That oil boom created a mentality in rulers that they didn't need to develop a diversified economy," said E.J. Alagoa, a historian now retired from the University of Port Harcourt. "All you needed to do was spend the money."

Per capita income is little changed from a half-century ago; the average Nigerian still lives on about $1 a day. And no region in this most populous country in Africa is poorer than the delta, home to 20 million people and most of the oil. Official mismanagement and greed are responsible for much of the waste.

Frustration has stoked a surge of militancy this year that has shaken world oil markets and helped push up U.S. gas prices. Well-armed militants operating stealthily in the creeks have forced a 20 percent to 25 percent cut in Nigerian oil output by taking hostages and attacking pipelines, killing dozens of security personnel.

Many fear the violence could intensify. That might prove annoying for U.S. gas consumers at the pump, but it would be devastating for beleaguered Nigerians, many of whom say their country and their lives would be better if oil had never been found.

From hope to despair

In August 1953, Shell oil explorers buzzed down tributaries of the Niger River on speedboats to the island village of Oloibiri. Three years later they made a big strike nearby, the first in all Nigeria.

Sunday F. Inengite, a local chief in his 70s, remembers the dawn of Nigeria's oil era as a time of hope and possibility. Today the village stands as a bleak, if typical, example of a delta community that has produced many millions of oil dollars for corporations and the Nigerian government, with little to show for it.

Power lines and communal water taps that have not worked in years seem to taunt Oloibiri's several hundred residents. The modest houses are made of cinderblock or plaster-covered mud brick and are arranged on the sandy island in two uneven rows. All sit dark except where kerosene lanterns emit feeble light.

The state government installed the wires in the 1980s. "For a period of 10 years there was no problem with light," the chief said. "We were very happy. We had light. A few people enjoyed radio, television -- before the breakdown." The breakdown, sometime in the 1990s, took distant gas turbines off-line, darkening Oloibiri.

In 2002, Shell pledged to restore power, Inengite said; it and the quasi-public Niger Delta Development Commission have said for months that light would return to Oloibiri, but the contractor -- a nephew of the village king -- keeps missing deadlines.

Inexplicable duplication produced two water towers for the village. The government's, begun in the 1990s, never worked and sits abandoned. Shell's tower fed communal taps for several months a few years ago.

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